Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Three types of Primary Interviewees that Consultants come across

As they say, consultants are not scientists; they largely thrive on collective wisdom. And one of the major sources of this collective wisdom is “primary interview”. By primary interview, I mean the one-to-one interactions that you have with people who may be SME (subject matter experts), competitors, customers or other stakeholders. I must say that these primary interviews have been one of the most reliable sources of information for me especially with the secondary data sources being inadequate or simply unreliable.

In this post, I will discuss three types of interviewees that I have come across quite often during my exposure to consulting. Surprisingly, I have come across at least one of each type, during each of my project. I will also try to come up with recommendations that may help you ace the interview or make the most of it.

The suspecting ones: Introducing yourself as consultant can have numerous effects on the person to be interviewed. And one of the most common reactions is them getting defensive and talking largely in monosyllables. The major reason behind their apprehension is their lack of belief in your story. By story, I mean the reason that you have communicated them for this interaction. The non-disclosure agreement and the competitive landscape don’t allow you to be explicit and transparent. While some may miss the big picture by refraining to answer even common queries but some are cynical because of their past experiences with similar clients.

How to handle: In plain terms, you can’t do much when you come across such interviewees. Your best bet lies in limiting yourself only to extremely pertinent questions (largely for self-satisfaction) and save your precious time.

The chatty ones: In many movies, you may have across a retired army general always willing to share his exploits of a war that he was part of. The chatty interviewees may have their origins in these yesteryear generals. Their knowledge is simply unparalleled but just too vast for your consulting experience, scope and 20-30 mins timeframe. It’s not a surprise that most of these fellas are veterans or nearing their retirement. The worst part is that you may come out with numerous pages of your notebook filled with information but when you take stock at the end of the day, you may end up with very few key points.

How to handle: If ever, you needed a questionnaire, this was the occasion. The rule is plain and simple, “all your questions will be answered but only if you can ask them.” Your ability to keep the conversation relevant and to the point will be tested to the hilt but if you can manage that, you will come out with loads of information.

The open ones: The consultant’s dream, the ones who are open to be questioned, see value in the discussion but at the same time are wary of “what’s strategic and what’s not”. Undoubtedly the best of the lot, given that they know their trade (though I am not suggesting that the other two don’t know their trade as their knowledge is what makes us reach out to them). I won’t be surprised if their ability to interact freely has helped them gather info at a faster pace as you may find this group to be reasonably young, as young as mid-thirties.

How to handle: Make the most of this interaction. If ever there was an opportunity to validate your assumptions, past findings, plug gaps in your data; this is the one. And after the interaction, don’t hesitate to ask if you can connect with them later for doubts or clarifications; you may get a positive answer and they are usually true to their words.

As they say in consulting, the major learning lies in interacting with different kinds of people, be it during client interaction, team meetings or other primary interviews. While there may not be a standard approach to ensuring success in such visits which makes it challenging but nevertheless its fun as you manage to find your way out. 


  1. As a person that gets interviewed often, I'd suggest that you please consider writing about the three types of consultants that "interviewees" come across:
    1. "Green-behind-the-ears" but try to make a confident stand with false sense of bravado (Worst of the lot)
    2. "I'll check with my team" - Clueless folks, but atleast they accept their ignorance & make an honest attempt to learn (Ok to work with)
    3. The ones who really understand what they are talking about (best to work with, but very rare!)

    Please feel free to add if I've missed any key type!

    1. Hi Anony... would have loved to know your name as you make informed comments.
      Based on my experience, I can say that with SMEs and KOLs, only the type 2 & 3 can succeed as insightful and meaningful questions only take the discussion forward.
      Can you tell, for the benefit of our readers, how should a young and inexperienced consultant approach such interviews? Does accepting ones rookie-ness puts the experts off?

  2. Hi Anony, Would have loved to know your name. Undoubtedly you make some informed comments.

    As has been my experience with SMEs as well as KOLs, only the type 2 & 3 can come up with useful information from the interaction as the flow of the interview is driven by asking insightful as well as meaningful questions.

    Could you for the benefit for our readers, tell how should a young and inexperienced consultant approach such interviews? Does accepting ones rookie-ness puts an expert off?

  3. What an article..we are all fans of this blog.... You are a real Senior Manager...